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"So you actually have to fight this... this grown dragon the day after tomorrow?" Huffy turned to him, leaning on her elbow. Her cerise eyes were lit with both horror and fascination. "Can't you just run away?"
Sprawled on his back beside her, Spike stretched his legs a little into the warm spring air and then let them slump. They curled over like a cat's paws. "Nope. He'll destroy Ponyville if I run away. At least, he said he would."
She stared at him. Spike could almost see the thoughts whizzing behind her expression.
"I don't think the Princesses would let that happen," he continued more slowly. "I'm sure that if I didn't fight, they'd protect the village. But I'm not a coward. I'm a dragon, and I have to stand my ground."
She frowned. "I think you should get out of here. I could invite you to the Brumby Bushlands – they're so far away that this Razorfang couldn't get to you."
He shook his head, and squirmed a little on his back. "I have to stand my ground," he said again, "because it's my ground."
She let out a harsh breath. "That's stupid."
He smiled. "Probably."
"But you told me about all those ponies who don't want you here," she said, her tone balanced between accusing and confused. "You told me that somepony threw a harpoon at you. Why bother staying if you're facing danger from all sides?"
"Not all sides," he said. "There are important reasons to leave, yeah, but there are even more important reasons to stay. Anyway, would anypony be able to take the Brumby from you without a fight?"
She hemmed a little, before rolling back over onto her back beside him, her face deeply unsettled. "No," she admitted, squinting at the sky. "But that's different. I'm safe in the Brumby Bushlands. Nothing can hurt me there."
He raised an eyebrow. "Was that always the case?"
"You like asking awkward questions," she grumbled.
"Guilty," he said cheerfully.
She gazed at the sky a little longer, and the lines of her face grew heavy and solemn. "I was still just a kid when I ran away," she finally said. "I was still pretty small, and my wings were just coming in, and they hurt so much I could barely think. Everything was too big and too scary and too horrible for words. I thought many times about going back, but I just couldn't face..." she paused, and then her voice continued in a stronger tone. "I spent the first couple of years hiding as much as I could. There are some strange creatures in the Brumby, and I wasn't big enough to challenge them. I ate anything I could find; tree bark, rocks, shrubs, berries."
"Dragons are omnivores," Spike said automatically.
"Sorry," he mumbled. His internal Twilight-trained library assistant didn't pipe up very often, but when it did it usually made him feel like a bit of a klutz. "Just thinking aloud. Please go on?"
She cleared her throat. "Well, that only continued for a couple of years, and then I started to grow. It was frightening at first, because it was getting harder and harder to hide myself. But at the same time I was getting better at doing certain things – hunting food, for example – and suddenly the other creatures were as wary of me as I was of them."
Spike found himself nodding with approval. "So you started to carve out your territory?"
"I never knew that's what it was," she confessed. "I didn't think it had a name, or that it was a dragon trait. I just knew it was mine."
"That's the way I feel about Ponyville."
They were lying in the huge depression in the centre of Spike's house, looking up at the sky. The jagged, incomplete walls surrounded them, no higher than the foundations in some places and built up to head-height (well, Spike's head-height) in others. Clouds skidded through the blue above them, occasionally pushed by some Pegasus or another.
Huffy was far shyer than he'd expected for a dragon who'd been her own carer since she was a baby, but it wasn't quite like the bashful shyness of Fluttershy. It was a watchful shyness, one that kept its eye on everything that could be a possible threat. It was the type of wariness he sometimes saw in wild animals. She seemed a lot more relaxed around Spike, but only now that they were alone.
After Trixie's dramatic entrance, Huffy had gently released her former unicorn, before turning away. "Show me your village, please," she said to Spike in a low voice, not looking back at where Trixie stood. The showpony's tear-stained face was torn and yet resigned, and she bowed her head in sad acceptance as Spike led Huffy away.
Spike had shown her around Ponyville (judiciously navigating around the protestors before the Town Hall), all the way from the edge of the Everfree to Ghastly Gorge. He had purposefully left his house until last. He was hugely proud of what he'd accomplished in such a short time, and showed it off like a peacock displaying its tail. Huffy had lain down, a little tired after her long flight. Spike had flopped down beside her. Slowly at first, but with increasing confidence, they had struck up a conversation that had somehow eaten up hours.
He found her to be an utterly intriguing conundrum, and she seemed equally fascinated by him. She had asked question after question about his life, first in Canterlot and now in Ponyville. His answers made her grow thoughtful and even bolder. Underlying all their talk was the unspoken mantra of another dragon like me. Spike could feel it pulsing in the air between them.
"What are you going to do about those protests?" Huffy asked idly, picking at her claws. She was thinner than he'd first noticed, and he thought it probably had something to do with having to find her own food.
He sighed, his chest rising and falling. "Nothing. What should I do? I might not be around in a couple of days, so why bother with them?"
She sucked in a sharp breath, and rolled over suddenly, her eyes boring into his. "You can't mean that," she said.
"I'd be an idiot if I hadn't considered it," he said.
"You sound as if you expect it," she accused.
He scowled. "That's not fair. I don't want to die. I've been carrying on because if I did anything else I think I'd go completely doolally. I've been building my house, training, helping out, even going to the Grand Galloping Gala for publicity purposes." He snorted. "Never thought I'd say that."
"Aren't you afraid?" Huffy asked.
"Of course." He exhaled hugely. "Sometimes I'm so afraid I can hardly move. I've even been so angry I felt like burning down everything I could see. But what good would that do? I've got to keep going. That's the only thing that makes any sense."
"But you still think you're going to die, don't you?"
Spike turned back to the sky. "Maybe," he said finally. "Maybe. He's so much bigger than me. He's bigger than both of us put together. Anyway, even if by some crazy miracle he doesn't kill me, there was that stupid harpoon too. I've still got no idea who threw it, and that's not very comforting."
"Have the policeponies found nothing?" Huffy's forepaw tentatively travelled to his shoulder, where it hovered, almost touching him - but not quite.
"Nope," he said, before swallowing hard. "The letters have been cleared of any magical signature, so they can't trace whichever unicorn did this through magical means. Same with the launching gear. They found that almost immediately. It isn't listed as stolen from any antique shops or museums, so it had to have come from a private collection. It's really old, 'bout a hundred and thirty years old – which makes it even older than me," he finished wryly.
"What do you mean?" Huffy's paw still hovered over his shoulder. The pale mauve of her scales looked somehow faded beside his dusky purple hide.
Spike glanced over at her. "Oh, well... it's not a nice story," he said, trying to disguise his anger with a brisk matter-of-factness. "It's sort of how the School for Gifted Unicorns got my egg. I only found out a couple of weeks ago."
He dragged his eyes back to the sky, and considered it. On the one claw, perhaps Huffy would understand and sympathise, but on the other it would probably only make her more frightened of ponies. "I'd rather not, right now," he decided, before giving her a smile to soften that statement. "Let's talk about happier things, like drought or famine or plague."
She laughed, though her eyes were still very curious. "So you know how you came to Equestria, then?"
He nodded shortly, before pausing. "Wait, you don't?"
She tipped her head, and her paw finally touched his shoulder tentatively. "No."
He sat up, rolling over to face her and taking her paw in his. "Huffy, I know how you came to Equestria," he said. "Just told me. I can go and get the letter."
Her mouth slowly dropped open as she returned his stare, her breathing becoming faster and shallower. "I..." she began.
He squeezed her paw. "You don't have to decide right now. The option's there."
She licked her dry lips, before her eyes fastened to the churned ground in his house. "I do want to know," she admitted. "But I don't. Not really."
He nodded understandingly. "I felt that way too," he said. "Still do, a bit."
She drew her long, willowy neck up, and squared herself. "Please get the letter?" she asked in a trembling voice.
He squeezed her paw again, before getting to his feet. "I'll be right back," he promised.
She lowered her eyes once more. He gave her a final look before beginning to run down to the library, bounding over his half-finished wall with a quick stroke of his wings. She looked frightened again, her narrow face filled with apprehension.
"Twilight?" he called breathlessly once he'd reached the open library door. "Hey, Twilight, anypony home?"
"In a minute, Spike!" Twilight's voice called out, and he tried to squash his impatience. He waited for a few minutes, shifting from claw to claw, before giving up with a small huff and pushing his head through the door.
"Twilight?" he asked again, trying to swallow his annoyance. What he saw brought him up short.
The Great and Powerful Trixie was seated at the replacement table in the main library, and her head was buried against Twilight's shoulder as she shook with suppressed sobs. Twilight gave him a dangerous look. "Spike, I told you to wait," she said in a quiet voice that nevertheless rang with irritation.
"Um, sorry," he said weakly. "I'll just be... I'll just go..."
"Wait!" Trixie whipped her head around, her ice-blue mane a mess. Purple eyes locked onto him, and abruptly Spike was having his head hugged fiercely by a travelling showpony. "Thank you for finding her," she said in a tear-soaked voice. "Thank you."
"It was mostly Just," he said, muffled by her strangling hug.
"You helped," Trixie said, pulling back. With a jaunty toss of her head that recalled her prouder days she added, "besides, you were the one who informed Trixie. I mean, me."
"You're welcome," he said, though it sounded more like a question. She didn't seem to have stopped crying the whole time that he and Huffy had been exploring, and then talking. "Though I don't see why you're thanking me if you're so unhappy," he said then, his brow furrowing.
She sniffed, and her haughty demeanour slipped over her like a spangled cloak. "Trixie is utterly fine, thank you very much. She is only the happiest unicorn in all Equestria!"
"Really," Spike said, eyebrow lifting. Trixie flushed.
"Of... of course," she said, but he had seen through her arrogance and she knew it. She sagged a little on the spot, before looking up at him wistfully. "How is she?"
"She's fine," Spike said, taking care to keep his tone soothing. Trixie relaxed infinitesimally. "We're up at my house now. I'm sorry I interrupted."
"What were you after?" Twilight asked.
"Could I grab Just's letter?" he said, rather sheepish that he'd intruded on Trixie's guilt.
"The one..." Twilight's eyes widened, and she glanced sidelong at the confused Trixie, before nodding once. "Right, it's upstairs. I won't be a moment." She began to race up the curving steps to her bedroom.
"Seriously, are you okay?" Spike asked Trixie, looking with some bemusement at her ragged mane and unkempt coat. "You're not looking so good."
She gave him a sharp look. "Trixie is only the greatest and most powerful unicorn in all recorded history," she sneered. "Why wouldn't she be okay?"
"Because you look like you've been dragged through a hedge backwards," Spike retorted. "And I know your name. You don't have to keep telling it to me."
"It's been... an emotional morning," she said stiffly.
"You don't say," Spike said, keeping his voice as even as possible.
"Did she ask about me?" Trixie blurted, before slamming her hoof over her mouth and giving him a stricken look. Then she gave a small, stifled scream, throwing herself back into the chair behind the table and sinking her head into her folded forelegs. "I can't keep this up," she moaned.
"Then don't." Spike shrugged, and his shoulder knocked the doorframe, making the tree shudder a bit. He winced and crouched down a little more. "I can see you're pretty shattered by what happened between you and Huffy all those years ago. You don't need to hide it."
Trixie sighed explosively. "I'm too used to it," she said. "I've always done it, even when I was a foal. It was the only way..." She trailed off, and then her lower lip quivered. "I never meant to hurt her so much," she said, and her purple eyes were filling. "I didn't even realise I was doing it. She never told me she was so unhappy. I never knew she heard me when I was boasting about owning a dragon..."
"You boasted about owning a dragon?" Spike exclaimed.
She nodded her head rapidly, her eyes closing in shame. Two tears escaped the lids, leaving tracks down her ravaged face. "I never told her that she meant more to me... I thought she knew..."
"We can't read minds, you know," Spike said, still amazed at the audacity of Trixie's bragging. No wonder Huffy had hated it. She would have felt like some sort of trophy, and not a living, feeling, sentient being at all. Spike would have been miserable as well. Anypony would.
"Of course I know!" Trixie said scornfully, roughly swiping at her eyes. "I just thought she understood how I felt. We did the show, made bits, I performed, she packed and collected the fares and made the travel arrangements... it had always been that way. I never knew she was unhappy - she never said. Everything was the same as it always was... and then suddenly the RSPCD turned up asking me questions, and before I knew it she was gone. Gone forever. I thought she must have died! I thought I'd killed her!"
"That still didn't change your ways though, did it?" Spike said. "When I first met you, you didn't have Huffy and you were the worst boaster I'd ever seen! You were unbearable!"
She clenched her jaw. "I know."
Spike blinked. He hadn't actually expected her to agree.
"It's something I learned when I was little," Trixie said, her gaze sliding away from him and focusing intently into a corner. "The strong ones hurt the weak ones. I wasn't... strong. I wasn't much of anything, really. Just a nothing, a nopony. Who cares about a nopony? I thought if I made myself the most amazing thing to come out of Fillydelphia, the greatest unicorn who'd ever lived, bigger than life... then nopony could..." She stopped, clamping her lips together tightly.
"Nopony could hurt you," Spike concluded, and a seed of pity for Trixie sprouted in his heart. She was a guilt-ridden shell of herself, and yet she continually tried to don the trappings of her former glory, all in the name of self-protection.
He could understand pride like that.
"She's nervous," he said into the silence. "She's still very apprehensive about everything to do with ponies. I think she'd be happy to hear you give your explanations, though. Well, I'm guessing; I don't really know. But she likes details, I've gathered." He smiled a little, remembering how she'd pestered him for every detail about greed-growth, and how irritated she'd been that he couldn't really recall all that much. "Wait for her to come to you. She will, you know. She did say that she loves you, even if she can't forgive you just yet. Besides, she's pretty curious. For now though, I think she's only comfortable with me around. It must be pretty scary to go from total isolation to a village, even one as small as Ponyville."
She gave him a wide-eyed look that mingled shock and gratitude in equal measure. "You... you meant it when you wrote that you could be my friend, didn't you?" she said, her voice faint.
She stood slowly and shakily, before walking back to him and hesitantly touching his face with a hoof. He allowed it. "I don't have many friends," she said, her face a mystery.
"You've got another one now." Spike nudged her hoof with a small press of his head. "While you're there, can you scratch that scale? My claws are outside after all, and I don't think this door's going to give me any more chances after the rattle I gave it earlier."
She actually laughed – a natural laugh, rather than her mocking stage-laugh – and began to scratch at his face with the tip of her hoof. Spike screwed up his eye. "Left a bit. Ahhh, that's it!"
"You feel like her," Trixie said thoughtfully.
Spike rolled his eyes. "Duh, dragon."
She huffed. "Don't you dare mock Trixie – or I'll stop scratching," she threatened, her voice carrying up into its more histrionic register again.
"Spike, what are you doing? She's a guest!" Twilight was coming down the stairs, the letter in its envelope hovering before her. "Why are you getting her to scratch your face?"
"Because you were upstairs and my feet are outside," he explained as if it were totally reasonable.
Twilight shook her head at him with her lips pressed tightly together, before turning to Trixie and gently lowering her hoof. "You don't have to," she said.
"He asked," Trixie said, pulling her dignity about her. "And I agreed."
"It's no big deal, Twilight," Spike said. She gave him an exasperated look.
"On the contrary," said Trixie, rounding upon them both with a determined expression. "It is a big deal."
Trixie shook her ragged mane and lifted her chin. Spike could almost see the cloak streaming from her shoulders. "There has been," she said grandly, "a revelation. From this day forth, the Great Trixie will be the best and most open-hoofed friend in all of Equestria! Let nopony see her deny a request to scratch her dragon friend's scales! She will be the very pinnacle of all friendhood! She will become - the Nice and Generous Trixie!" She struck an impressive pose, and little clouds of twinkling smoke puffed into existence on either side of her.
"Er..." Spike said, nonplussed. It seemed that Trixie had decided to swing from one extreme to another. "You move fast when you want to, don't you?" he asked faintly.
"That's very good to hear," Twilight said, a merry smile on her face. "Well, Nice and Generous Trixie, would you like a cup of daisy tea? And I can lend you a brush and a curry-comb."
Trixie jerked out of her heroic stance, her brow knitting. "Does Tri- do I look that bad?"
For answer, Twilight conjured a mirror. Trixie blanched at the sight of her drawn and tear-streaked face, touching the deep circles beneath her eyes in dismay. "I look awful."
"That's why I asked before," Spike pointed out. She pulled herself up straighter, looking between them guardedly.
"But there's something I don't understand."
"What's that?" Twilight asked, dismissing her mirror and cocking her head.
"Why help me?" Trixie asked bluntly. "I completely humiliated your friends. I lied to the whole village. I was the reason those two nincompoops brought the Ursa to town."
"Because you're my friend now," Spike said.
"Because everypony needs second chances," Twilight said, the smile still pulling at her lips. "The bathroom is upstairs and to your right. Go wash your face, and then I'll make you a cup of tea."
Spike nodded to her, smiled at Trixie's astonished face and pulled his head out of the door. The letter soared to his feet, and he picked it up carefully. "I'll see you later, you guys," he called.
"Next time, when I tell you to wait - wait!" Twilight's voice carried out to him, and his smile became a grin as he turned and began to make his way back to his house.
He could make out Huffy sitting stock-still on her haunches, and he wondered why she looked so awkward for a moment. Then he followed the direction of her eyes to the gap in the stones where his door would one day stand, and sucked in a sharp breath. He swore softly, his pulse suddenly thudding in his ears, and began to race towards the half-finished house.
There was a pony standing there. Worse, it was a pony Spike recognised.
Snatches of what she was saying drifted to his ears as he ran, competing with the rasp of his breath and the thud of his heart. The letter fluttered to the ground behind him. "...have a dragon already," the pony said in an imperious yet trembling voice. "We don't need two of you. Go away!"
Huffy seemed to shrink as she stared at the bluish-green unicorn with the flyaway peach-tinted mane, though her muscles tensed visibly. What alarmed Spike the most about that reaction was that it didn't seem like she was getting ready to flee – rather, it seemed as though she was preparing to fight. "I'm just visiting," she mumbled. "I'm not stayi..."
Spike cleared the wall with a bound, and skidded to stand before Huffy, panting hard. "Did she hurt you?" he demanded.
Huffy's magnificent teeth bared. "No."
"Did she upset you?"
Her eyes hardened. "How can you stand to stay amongst ponies at all?" she demanded hotly.
"Because she's not all ponies," he said, before releasing a slow breath. "Let me take care of this."
"Be my guest," Huffy said, her lip curling with anger.
Spike turned to face the leader of the 'Parents for a Peaceful Equestria', trying to regard her with a dispassionate, unbiased eye. It was quite the task. She was shaking violently, but her head was held high and proud. Her eyes were two pinpricks of utter fear. "What do you want?" It came out as a growl, though he hadn't intended it that way.
"I want that creature to leave!" she said shrilly.
"Her name is Huffy," Spike said coolly, though there were still definite undertones of 'growl' going on. He took another deep breath, hoping to calm himself down. This stupid pony could have driven Huffy to anything. "She's only here for a few days. She came to visit from a long way away."
"She should go back to a long way away!" the unicorn declared, her hair quivering with the force of her trembles. "We don't want you here!"
Spike gritted his teeth. "Right. That's it."
"Spike...?" Huffy began tentatively, but she was shocked into silence when Spike reached out a paw, lifted the unicorn into the air and held her inches from his nose.
"I have had enough of you," he snarled. "Huffy ran away when she was no more than a foal. She's spent ten years hiding from everypony and everything. She is frightened of you. And you think it's a good idea to come here and berate her? What gives you the right, huh?" He shook her slightly. "You don't even live here!"
The unicorn was cross-eyed in panic as she flopped about in his grip, her mouth slack and her face frozen in a rictus of fright.
Spike jerked the pony closer to his face, fixing her with a glare from one furious green eye. "I can put up with your horseapples," he said, his tone dark and threatening. "All your protests and slogans and jargon and hypocrisy, I can deal with it. She is off-limits. You got that?"
The unicorn nodded frantically, her head wobbling madly on a neck limp with terror.
"Good," Spike grunted, and put her down.
The unicorn's legs almost gave way when she found herself on solid ground once more. She immediately drew herself up, and swallowed hard as she met his eyes again. Her mouth opened as though she was about to speak, but no noise emerged.
Spike raised his eyebrows. "Was there something?"
Her mouth remained open and a strangled noise emerged, like a kitten being sat upon. He rolled his eyes. "Oh for Luna's sake," he spat. "I'm not going to hurt you. If you've got something to say, say it to me. Not her, me."
The unicorn's mouth snapped shut, and she blinked heavily a few times, before planting her hooves more firmly. "You..." she began in a rasping, dread-laden voice that trailed off as soon as it had begun.
"Spike," Huffy said softly. "She was..."
"I know what she was doing," Spike said with contempt as he watched the unicorn wrestling with her fear. "She was making you afraid again. I returned the favour- and I've broken one of my own rules in the process too. Look, I'm sorry, Huffy. Maybe we should go down to the Lake or something, there aren't usually many ponies there. Might be a few photographers though."
"No, listen." Huffy grabbed his foreleg and whirled him around to face her. "You're not listening. She thought I was here to hurt you."
Spike's mouth lined up a retort, but his brain had suddenly decided to take a short holiday. He gaped at her, jaw working uselessly.
The unicorn finally found her voice. "You're..." she said weakly, "you're the Ponyville Dragon. Not her. She should go away."
"She should do whatever it is she thinks she should do and not what anypony else says she should do," Spike said, his mouth working on automatic as his brain tried to catch up.
"Spike," Huffy said, a glint of amusement now entering her eye. "Snap out of it."
He closed his eyes, and pinched his foreleg. Opening them, he was still looking into Huffy's face, which was now definitely amused. "She's still there, isn't she?"
Huffy glanced over his shoulder. "And shaking like a leaf."
Spike whirled on her, his eyes incredulous. "But you hate me!"
The pony flinched at his sudden movement. "I don't like dragons," she said stiffly. "But if there's got to be one, it's going to be you and not some ravening beast from the depths of that foul place near Palfreyton." She gave a genteel shudder.
Spike stared at her for a minute, his mind trying to process that. "So... you don't want a dragon, but you sort of do, and you want it to be me..." he said slowly.
The unicorn sniffed. "Yes. No. Sort of."
Spike choked on that for another second, before he began to laugh helplessly. "You're messed up," he said between guffaws that felt like they rose from the very soles of his feet. "You are so messed up..."
"You chased the other dragon away," the unicorn said with brittle dignity, and Spike shook his head feebly as his laughter redoubled.
"You think I chased Razorfang away?" he said, before wrapping a foreleg around his stomach, rocking backwards against his tail. "Ow. Oh, stop it, it hurts! Me? Baaaahahah! I'm a bug compared to him!"
"But you still did it," she said, her mouth held so sourly that Spike thought that the admission must have left an awful taste in her mouth. "You still went and faced him."
"Well, of course I did! This is my village!" Spike wiped at his eyes and looked down at her, hugely entertained. "You're a total mess, lady."
"I am a respected shopkeeper!" she said with high-pitched indignation.
"You're a market stallholder," Spike retorted aimiably, "and a complete and total hypocrite. Look, Huffy's a visitor, and she won't be hurting anypony either. Your lot are the ones trying to kill, not us."
"Or have I somehow gained the ability to make harpoons magically hurl themselves at my head now?" Spike looked at Huffy, who had her claws stuffed into her mouth to keep from laughing. "That's a fancy new skill I've picked up. I can see it coming in handy, for - oooh, I don't know - nothing."
"We would never resort to violence," the pony said, her head lifting arrogantly. "We will achieve our goals though peaceful means."
"I know about the protests in nearby villages," Spike said almost conversationally, scratching his chin. "If they come here all at the same time, it's going to be anything but peaceful. It'll be a riot, and you know it."
"We are trying to protect our foals!" She stamped a hoof angrily, her fear lost in outrage.
He leaned forward. "I – don't – eat – ponies," he said, as clearly and as forcefully as he could. His breath blew the unicorn's frizzy mane backwards, and she swallowed. Then her head raised once more, her yellow eyes desperate and full of an old, old dread.
"I know," she replied meekly. "But they're not all like you. How was I supposed to know that it – that she – wouldn't be like that thing in the Everfree Forest? How do I know that she wouldn't be like the thing that killed my great-grandparents?"
Spike's eyebrows shot skywards. "A dragon killed your...?"
The unicorn nodded, and her face became set. "My grandfather was just a foal, and he saw it all. A dragon rampaged through Upper Dressage, destroying the farmsteads. He escaped by hiding under some rubble. He told me the story when I was just a little filly."
"When did this happen?"
"One hundred and six years ago," the unicorn said with frosty accuracy.
"Rampaged..." Spike said, and then winced. "Did your grandfather describe the dragon at all?"
"Huge," she said flatly. "Red and black. Monstrous. Killing and stealing, burning everything it couldn't steal."
"Did it have wings?" Spike asked intently.
The unicorn shook her head. "He said it was like a great malformed lizard."
"Greed-growth," Huffy said in realisation. "Like what happened to you."
"Got it in one," Spike sighed.
The unicorn looked puzzled. "This... makes sense to you?"
"Yeah," Spike said heavily. "It's a sort of thing that happens when an immature dragon's greed gets out of control. Their internal magic gets in on the act, and they start to grow. It's not like growing up normally. You grow up sort of... twisted instead. You don't get wings, you get obsessed, and you start to hoard like a crazy pony. The more you hoard, the more you grow. It's fast, too – it can take minutes, even seconds. Then your mind gets muddled and you forget how to talk. It's weird and blurry, and you can't remember much."
"It happened to you?" The pony gasped, and began to back away slowly, her eyes once more enormous with fright.
"It won't happen again," Spike said crossly. "Rarity snapped me out of it. It only lasted a day, and I didn't hurt anypony. I still made a huge mess though," he concluded, in the interests of honesty. "It took forever to fix it all up."
"You... fixed everything yourself, then?" The greenish-blue pony stopped her retreat, and frowned.
"Not all by myself," he said, guilt flickering in his eyes. "But as much as I could, yeah. I was still only a baby, about half your size at the time. I was very busy for... sheesh, musta been months."
She gave him a long, speculative look. "I see."
"So, a greed-grown dragon killed your great-grandparents, and you were raised on the stories." Spike rubbed his face. "That's why you're so afraid of us."
"I'm not afraid," the pony said, her face defiant and her voice harsh. Then she stepped back with a screech when Huffy reached out her forepaw towards her. The long, mauve claws hovered in the air a whole six pony-lengths from the unicorn. They hadn't even come close.
"Yes you are," Huffy said simply, folding her forepaw back beneath her.
"What's your name, anyway?" Spike asked. "I can't keep on thinking about you as 'the greeny-blue unicorn'."
"Grape Vine," the unicorn said, her face colouring slightly. "And I'm not afraid."
"Yeah, you are, and don't bother denying it," Spike said. "Hello, predator talking. I can smell you being frightened from all the way over here."
"Really?" she squeaked.
"Yep." Spike shrugged.
"So you admit to being a predator, then?" Grape Vine's face became stony.
"Well, I can't really pretend that I'm not," Spike said reluctantly. "Fangs, claws, the whole sackful of bits, you know. But I don't hunt, and I sure as sugar don't hunt ponies."
"You might one day," she accused.
"Don't think so." Spike shrugged again. "I've claimed my territory. My hoard is now my ponies. It's a natural claiming according to the books, based on age and thought and balance, so there'll be no greed-growth this time. That sort of thing is totally directionless - you just want. Territory's different; you need. I don't have to grab everything in sight, because now I know what I need - and that's them. My ponies. I'm going to help them and protect them and watch over them. It wouldn't make any sense to go around hunting and eating them." He smiled, thinking of Luna. "I'll be greedy in a different way, a better way. I know it's different from how other dragons think about territory, but then, I've been told I'm a very different sort of dragon."
Grape Vine's mouth pursed as she chewed that over for a few moments. Then she gave the two dragons a fierce look. "I still don't like you," she told them.
"Likewise," Spike said, wrinkling his snout in distaste.
"A beast like you decimated a farming village, killed my great-grandparents and left my grandfather an orphan. I won't ever forget that," she said, and there was a threat implicit in her tone. Spike bristled, his anger throwing caution to the winds.
"Well, a unicorn killed my mother, stole my egg and left my two siblings to die," he retorted. "It hasn't stopped me from loving a unicorn as a sister."
Grape Vine looked utterly shocked. So did Huffy. The white and purple dragon's head had whipped back to him, her mouth open in horror. Her eyes gradually filled with a luminous sympathy, and she curled her tail around Spike's with a delicate, unsure touch. "Spike," she said softly.
He shook his head roughly. "Sorry. Told you it wasn't a very nice story. I shouldn't have blurted it out like that, but she got me cross."
Grape Vine opened her mouth once more as if to challenge that statement, before her head slumped. "I didn't know about that," she said.
"Not many ponies do," Spike said, his jaw tight. "Ponies used to hunt us, and we used to hunt ponies, until a treaty was formed. A treaty that somepony broke when they threw a harpoon at me."
"A treaty?" Grape Vine said, dismay creeping around the edges of her voice.
"You run a political movement about dragons and you didn't even know that?" Spike asked in disgust, before shaking his head. "Of course you didn't. Yeah, the Wyrmstadt's not real happy with us right now, and it's mostly thanks to your 'Parents' group. By the way? Obvious name."
Grape Vine began to frown. "A treaty between dragons and ponies... when?"
"A hundred years ago," Spike said. "Too late for me by twenty years, and too late for your great-grandparents by only six."
"What were the terms?"
Spike snorted smoke through his nostrils in annoyance. "Go look it up, I'm not a library," he growled.
"Is my story like that...?" Huffy wondered aloud, her head snaking around to nestle comfortingly against Spike's shoulder.
"Not that much," Spike said, still staring at Grape Vine. "But it's not very nice either. The one I feel truly sorry for is Razorfang."
"But he wants to kill you!" Grape Vine exclaimed, and Spike gave her a level look.
Grape Vine flushed.
"What happened to him?" Huffy asked, her jaw moving against his shoulder as she spoke.
"His mate was killed by a magical avalanche started by ponies because she wouldn't leave her home," Spike said in as even a voice as he could muster. He watched Grape Vine's face intently, which paled by increments as he spoke. "They smashed in her skull with a boulder. His two sons flew to avenge her, but they were killed too. Razorfang was in the Long Sleep, and woke up long after everypony responsible was dead."
"Ponies did that?" Grape Vine asked in a small, sick voice.
"I didn't know," she said, her yellow eyes becoming confused and her blowsy hair getting caught in her rapidly-blinking eyelashes.
"Now you do." Spike was suddenly tired of her and her narrow, blinkered thinking. She'd actually listened this time, however, which was a vast improvement compared to their first meeting. Still, he didn't feel like having to explain himself any more, and he was beginning to get annoyed by the shifting tides of hostility and ignorance. He raised his head, and spotted the letter where it had fallen during his dash to intervene between Huffy and the unicorn. "And I have news for Huffy regarding her own egg, so if you don't mind - push off."
Huffy gasped slightly at his rudeness, before chuckling guiltily. "Not very polite, Spike."
"She puts me in a bad mood," he groused. "Push off, please."
Grape Vine closed her mouth with an audible snap. Then the leader of the Anti-Dragon movement trotted away from the house with offended outrage leaking from every pore.
"I don't think you got on her good side, somehow," Huffy said dryly.
"I'll lie awake at night and cry about it," he said, sarcasm dripping from his tone. Then he sobered, dismissing the unicorn from his mind and drawing himself up straighter. "Huffy, do you want to know where your egg came from?"
She paused, before giving him a serious look. "You said it wasn't as bad..."
"But it's still pretty bad," he sighed, turning to face her. Her tail gripped his a little harder, before she nodded again, face impassive.
"I don't want to, but I think perhaps I need to," she said, "and like you said, need's not the same as want." Her tail twitched, before uncoiling. He could feel her eyes on his back as he walked over to the discarded letter and brought it back.
"Okay." He opened it up deftly, spreading it out and laying on his belly. "Where is that paragraph..."
"You're so clever with your claws," she said as she lay down beside him, openly admiring of his hard-won skill. "Maybe I should pick up apples for a month."
"It gets old," he muttered, focusing on Just's spidery hoofwriting. "Here we go." He looked up at her. "Ready?"
She closed her eyes, breathing deeply, before opening them again and fixing them on his face. "Ready," she said.
He turned back to the letter. Somehow the sight of her eyes so close had shaken him. They were a clear and perfect blend of pink and purple. "Right," he said in a cracking voice, and had to clear his throat. "Okay then. Your mum was the dragoness of the Cindery Catacombs, and your dad was the dragon of the Tanglevine Forest. Your egg was one of four in the clutch..."
"You two seem to be having fun," Twilight commented as they came back to the library that evening, chatting excitedly. They'd gone flying and swimming, and Spike had shown her some of the moves Rainbow Dash had taught him. In return, Huffy had demonstrated an entirely new flame she had come up with – a sort of fireball that rocketed from her in a spitting, hissing blaze of dark purple. Spike had been a bit surprised at the colour of her fire, somehow expecting it to be green like his. She had been equally surprised to discover green fire, and there had been a friendly contest for a small time. Huffy had a lot more fire, but Spike had a lot more control, and his invisible flame sealed his victory.
"We went swimming," Huffy said, her excitement immediately snuffing out at the sound of a pony's voice to be replaced by a subdued wariness. "I haven't swum for so long. There's only one waterhole in the Brumby, and it's too small to swim in now."
Spike took up the tale, and his excitement was plain for everypony to see. "It was great, Twilight! She can do this barrel-roll, it's amazing! And she can shoot these fireballs that hit the target from a whole thirty ponystrides away! Huffy's an incredible flyer. She didn't believe me when I told her I only got the hang of it a fortnight ago!" He puffed out his chest proudly.
"Easy there, Wonderbolt Spike," Twilight laughed. "Are you hungry?"
The apples that had been put aside for Huffy's welcome were now piled at the side of the Library, stacked there along with Spike's usual crates and barrels. Spike eagerly grabbed for one of his barrels and yanked the lid off with as much speed as he could manage, before pinching two apples and tossing them into his mouth. "Oh yeah," he sighed, before grabbing a clawful more and practically cramming them in.
"Chew, Spike," Twilight said, her eyebrows high. "You'll choke."
"Nnnwn't," he mumbled back defiantly, and swallowed. "No I won't," he repeated more clearly. "Anyway, I was hungry!"
"Don't you think you should serve your guest first?" Twilight flicked a meaningful glance over to Huffy, who was watching Spike with bemusement.
"Oh, right." Spike grinned, and rubbed the back of his neck. "Sorry, Huffy. What would you like? Let's see... Macintosh has given us red apples, green apples, yellow apples, some pumpkins, some - bleagh, why does he keep growing turnips? Why would anypony? – aaaand some parsnips, and some potatoes..."
"Apples would be lovely," Huffy said, settling herself down in the square. "Though I don't think I can eat them quite like you do."
"Nopony eats apples quite like Spike does," Twilight said.
"Just stick your head in the barrel." Spike shrugged. "That's what I used to do."
Huffy made a face at that idea, and tried to pick up the apple, her larger claws slicing through the white flesh without any resistance whatsoever. She frowned. "It's not easy, is it?"
"You've got to learn to use just the right amount of pressure," Spike told her, picking up another apple and munching happily.
She tried again, before giving up with an annoyed huff and plunging her snout into the barrel as he had suggested. She ate ravenously, with occasional tearing motions of her head that made Spike feel rather uneasy. She finished her barrel long before Spike had even made a dent in his, and licked her muzzle clean with her long, forked tongue as she waited.
From her perch on the library's front stoop, Twilight gave Huffy a shrewd look. "You're used to eating meat, aren't you?" she asked, though her tone made it clear that it wasn't really a question. "That jerk of your head, that's from tearing meat. I've seen Owloysius do it, and Winona too."
Huffy's mouth became a thin, set line, and she reached for another barrel. "I did what I had to," she answered obliquely, looking anywhere but at Spike.
"So you can hunt?" Spike asked in fascination, leaning forward. "Whoa."
She scrabbled at the lid of the barrel, creating deep scores in the wood, before handing it to him to open. Her eyes still didn't meet his. He stuck a claw through the lid and yanked it off, handing it back. She took it, but made no move to begin eating again. "Huffy?"
"Don't hate me," she said, clutching the barrel and continuing to steadfastly avert her gaze. "Please?"
He frowned. "What? Huffy, why would I hate you?"
Her eyes didn't leave the cobbles. "Because I hunt, and eat meat, and you don't," she said, her voice shaking a little. "You told that unicorn that you didn't and never would. You were proud of it. I... I never used to, but I found a dead deer and I was so hungry... I've never hurt a pony, ever, but I've... I had to learn. I would have starved..."
His stomach churned a little at the notion, and he found himself wishing he hadn't eaten so fast. "I don't hate you," he said. "The whole idea makes me feel a bit sick, but if it works for you, I don't mind. Besides," he brightened, "maybe you could teach me some of your hunting tricks! I bet that'd come in really handy if I ever have to defend the village from something I can't scare off."
Huffy's eyes jerked to him. "Really? You don't mind?"
"Hey, I just said that, didn't I?" He nudged her.
"Dragons are omnivores," Twilight said, nodding wisely.
Huffy blinked, and then looked between Spike and Twilight with dawning suspicion in her face. Spike flushed, remembering how he'd blurted the very same thing earlier.
"You can eat practically anything. You were alone and young and hungry. You would have died of starvation. We're not going to judge you for eating what you had to," Twilight continued, and her hoof reached out to touch Huffy's paw in the same comforting way she usually touched Spike's. His small pang of jealousy faded when he saw how the touch affected Huffy. Her expression shifted from immediate fear to dawning wonder.
"Thank you," she said, almost whispering in relief.
"You'll find that the diet here is pretty low on deer and pretty high in apples, though," Spike said, his mouth quirking.
"You've got no idea how long it's been since I tasted an apple, a proper, grown-by-an-earth-pony apple," she said fervently.
"Dig in, and don't be shy," Twilight told her. "Sweet Apple Acres is getting all the aid they'll ever need and more out of Spike."
"More 'helping out'?" Huffy asked him, and he grinned a little, tossing another apple into his mouth.
"Sort of, yeah," he agreed. "Sort of payment for services rendered, sort of territory, sort of lots of things. But it all works in my head, promise."
"You have a very complicated life." Huffy shook her head, before bending to her new barrel.
Spike exchanged a look with Twilight, before beginning to chuckle. "I say that a lot," he agreed.
"Never stops," Twilight giggled, levitating an apple for herself out of Spike's barrel. He scowled.
"You stole my apple," he said darkly.
"Maybe you can get started on those turnips?" she suggested, and snickered at his resulting growl.
A pair of purple eyes were watching them longingly from the library window. Spike picked up another apple and gave them a surreptitious wink.
Pinkie Pie's 'Welcome Huffy!' party was in fact a very small affair. Huffy herself seemed bemused and slightly alarmed by it. It didn't last long, and was more in the nature of a late snack by starlight than an actual party. Spike found himself grateful that Pinkie had restrained her natural inclination to turn it into a balloons-and-cake extravaganza. Celestia only knew how much that would have freaked Huffy out.
Only his six dear friends, Macintosh, Just and Trixie attended. Huffy spent most of the time talking with Fluttershy. That particular conversation was agonisingly stilted; the two shy creatures were practically outdoing each other when it came to awkward pauses and stammering. Huffy's eyes continually darted between Spike and Trixie, who sat with Twilight, Rainbow Dash and Rarity.
Trixie herself didn't take her eyes from Huffy once.
Rarity had brought along a few amethysts as a welcome present for Huffy, and Spike gave her a thankful look. Rarity brushed it off with a wave of her hoof, and watched the slim mauve dragon eat her gift with satisfaction. Huffy's eyes widened, and then lidded in bliss. "Oh my," she said faintly.
"Been a long time between gems?" Spike asked her.
"Quiet, I'm in heaven," she said, her eyes still closed.
"So glad you like it, Huffy dear," Rarity said, smiling.
"Shh," Spike said, exaggeratedly lifting a claw to his lips.
The party ended. Twilight kissed him goodnight, before ushering Trixie inside. The two dragons hunkered down by the library, and Spike made sure that he was between Huffy and the streets. He couldn't shield her all that well, but she would most probably feel better with somepony between her and all those strange ponies. The lights in the library switched off, and a cool darkness spread through the square. Spike sighed, and put his head on his claws, his eyes closing.
"Your friends are very nice," Huffy said, her tone slightly surprised. Her voice was a soft susurration in the night.
Spike smiled. "Yeah, they're great. Did you like talking with Fluttershy?"
"She knows a lot about animals, doesn't she?"
"She runs the Animal Shelter here in Ponyville," Spike said.
She giggled. "She sure blushes a lot around that big red one."
Spike chuckled as well. "That's a new development."
There was a small pause. Spike closed his eyes again, his limbs sinking against the warm cobblestones.
"Do you want to visit the Brumby Bushlands with me tomorrow?" Huffy whispered.
Spike shifted. "Sure," he said, "but how far is it really? I don't want to be tired for the fight."
She was silent for a moment. "It's pretty far," she said. "I flew all morning and afternoon. I don't know how you'd go. I mean, you're smaller than me."
"I'm fast," he said.
"You are," she allowed. "But it's not a case of being fast, that flight. It's an endurance test."
Spike pulled a face. "I hate endurance tests. Did I tell you about that obstacle course?"
She laughed, her body shunting closer to his. "It's nice here," she said after a short pause. "Maybe we should stay in Ponyville tomorrow."
He opened his eyes again, and looked over at her. Her face was half-obscured by darkness, her eyes glinting in the starlight. "Are you sure? You must really want to go home."
"I do," she said, "but you're not going to be tired tomorrow for my sake."
"It'd be fine if you wanted to sneak back for the day," he protested. "And I do want to see your home, I really do..."
"Shh," she said, and her claw wrapped around his once more. Spike was starting to look forward to that touch, the touch of another dragon like me. "It's okay. I'll stay here until after the fight."
He opened his mouth to protest some more, and she shook her head adamantly. "I won't hear it," she said firmly. "Now get some rest."
Spike blinked, and obediently laid his head back onto his feet. Her paw was nestled against his cheek. Silence fell over the square once more, and to his somewhat drowsy surprise Spike found that he was perfectly peaceful. His village lay safe and sleeping contentedly all around him, and the warm glow of possessive pride bathed his mind. Beside him lay his newest friend and living proof that he was not alone. The sweet night breezes played over his back, and he could feel sleep approaching like a wave.
Just before the wave broke, he vaguely heard a whisper. "You won't die, Spike. You won't."
He grunted muzzily, before shifting his head over to hers. Her soft intake of breath hung in the air like a raindrop on a spiderweb, but he was too sleepy and comfortable to notice. She burned with the same internal fires as he did. She was so warm. "G'sleep," he ordered, and her neck slowly relaxed, her head sliding beside his.
"Good night, Spike," she said quietly.
"G'night," he mumbled, and dropped into sleep between one thought and the next.
Spike woke up the next morning with Huffy snoring softly beside him. His peace was gone. His mind was full of just one word, and all else was shrieking static. On autopilot, he stood and stretched, and with the ease of long practise shoved the fear into a dark corner of his mind. Tomorrow. It was tomorrow.
This could be his last day to live.